China and the Pax Americana: Adapting Ancient Strategy for Modern Times

By Brandon Fey ’27

Brandon Fey ’27

Competition is the ultimate inevitability of ambitious statehood. Since antiquity, the growth of aspiring powers has been tested by the defiant presence of other powerful states. This is the legacy of great powers, which the United States has now claimed. American preeminence, the global “Pax Americana,” is currently threatened by the aspirant People’s Republic of China. If this definitive struggle is to be successfully endured, the United States must learn from the fates of its predecessors. 


Since the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949, relations between the U.S. and China have undergone several periods of episodic hostility and indifference. Such persisting tensions have become increasingly malevolent since China’s recent emergence as the world’s second-largest economic power. As both states continue to increase their power, this rivalry will persist until one is forced to capitulate. Because of this, the U.S. must understand that this conflict is an inevitable struggle, which no amount of de-escalation can annul.   

This lesson was observed by the Athenian historian and general Thucydides from his experience in the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 B.C.). He reflected upon the three periods of fighting he had observed between the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. With hindsight, he characterized these more minor, separate conflicts as parts of a cohesive 27-year struggle. The Peloponnesian War was waged out of a preemptive fear from the traditional state of Sparta, which recognized that the dynamic power of Athens (the America of Greece) was to gain eventual hegemony over Greece. With the financial support of the Persian Empire, Sparta eventually matched the once-dominant Athenian navy and emerged victorious.  

Athenian defeat was predicted by the prominent statesman Pericles at the dawn of the war. He said that due to their advantageous economic and international position, the Athenians could defeat Sparta only if they remained focused on that objective. However, Pericles died early in the war, and the Athenians grew distracted. They allowed internal political rivalries to cripple their leadership, as their fickle democracy irrationally ousted some of their most capable generals and statesmen. As a result, Athens could not maintain its crucial naval advantage and suffered the complete destruction of its fleet and, with it, the end of its empire. This represents an uncanny correlation to contemporary America.   

The Thucydidean struggle was later inherited by the expanding Roman Republic, whose ambitions were checked by the growing influence of Carthage in North Africa. Like their Greek predecessors, Rome and Carthage fought a series of three Punic Wars (264-146 B.C.) from which Rome emerged as the de facto superpower of the Mediterranean, while Carthage was conquered and destroyed. The Romans learned from the Athenian failure and understood the importance of prioritizing their struggle with Carthage as a matter of existential importance. One of the most sagacious Roman statesmen, Marcus Porcius Cato, emphasized this crucial philosophy. Whenever he addressed the senate, regardless of the topic, he always punctuated his speeches with the famous words “Carthago delenda est” (English: “Carthage must be destroyed”).    

Like the Romans, the United States must avoid the fate of the politically tumultuous Athenians by making the Chinese conflict a matter of foremost political concern and agreement. While the Chinese threat remains a bipartisan acknowledgment, all non-pertinent affairs must be weighed against the gravity of this immediate struggle and the economic, diplomatic, and societal consequences that will result from failure.   

If the United States is to achieve victory over its own Thucydidean rival, it must embrace a clear national focus. Every aspect of society must align with the greater objective of defeating its rival to achieve victory, which at the very least, would entail the end of China’s competitive ambitions through economic coercion and military deterrence. Modern national focus requires foremost public acknowledgment of the existential Chinese threat and the integration of this issue into many other domestic and diplomatic concerns. This would involve prioritizing spending that directly increases the military, technological, and economic might of the United States. It would also involve emphasizing industry and specialized education and encouraging citizens to take an active role in this competition by supporting American business and not allowing their political divisions to distract them from American national security. If individuals feel that they can make meaningful contributions, they will have a greater interest in doing their part for the collective effort.    

National focus of this kind was successfully implemented during the Second World War, in which the states and federal government heavily invested in competitive industries that were the most effective for increasing military capabilities. Likewise, the concept of “the homefront” inspired citizens to cooperate by rationing goods and entering the industrial labor force to contribute to a collective victory against the indiscriminate threat the Axis powers posed to their way of life. In the current digital age, the homefront has become the primary battlefield.  

The existence of nuclear weapons has forever altered conflicts between great, now-nuclear powers. This was observed in the Cold War, which naturally pitted the United States as the most capable proponent of contemporary Western values against the communist Soviet Union. This conflict revealed that contests on this scale have become competitions in which power can outlast the other through economic and social stability.    

The U.S. could outcompete the Soviet Union by outspending its military, out-innovating its technology, out-producing its agriculture, and out-influencing its global position. Superiority in these contests created a set of international imperatives that the USSR could not fulfill. Massive U.S. military spending compelled the Kremlin to maintain its own high military budget to keep pace. This diverted the Soviet government’s funds from critical domestic concerns and was partially responsible for its poor economic policies. The USSR’s economic instability caused internal turmoil, weakening trust in the Communist Party which brought about democratic reforms, and contributed to the ultimate collapse of the union in 1991.   

The fall of the Soviet Union destroyed its hostile communist regime and liberated much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, but it allowed a subsequent threat to emerge in the form of the current Russian Federation. This is because the United States failed to pursue effective efforts to pacify the new Russian state, allowing the political ascension of the expansionist Vladimir Putin. Sparta encountered a similar plight due to its failure to halt Athens’s regenerative abilities completely. With the Spartans distracted by other affairs, Athens was able to remilitarize and support a coalition of city-states against Sparta in the Corinthian War (395-387 B.C.), bringing about the downfall of its former conqueror. America must not forget the importance of alliance-building efforts in defeating its primary adversary.   

In contrast, the Romans learned from this lesson and ensured the complete destruction and permanent conquest of Carthage. While inflicting devastation on this scale lacks feasibility (both morally and practically) in the modern age, the United States achieved a comparable level of success in its occupation of Germany and Japan following the Second World War. Understanding the inherent potential of these two then-defeated states, the U.S. heavily invested in their reconstruction, which, as a result, has built two crucial allies in strategic global locations. Regarding a hypothetical Chinese defeat, an immense level of investment would be required to hinder a later regime from reigniting the current conflict. The U.S. must remember the lessons of its historic predecessors and apply them to its relationship with China.   

It is imperative that America continues to invest in its advantageous network of Pacific allies and its competitive naval technology to continue deterring Chinese hostility in the Pacific. This includes a sustained commitment to defending Taiwan and its vital semiconductor industry, which is crucial for competitive technological manufacturing. There is no room for isolationism in this strategic competition, nor is there room for America’s polarized political environment. If the United States can fully focus on the Chinese threat with complete dedication, it can outlast its competition.   

In the most primary sense, Chinese defeat would involve the collapse of the party’s regime and, with it, the adverse competitive ambitions of the nation. Despite the Chinese government’s reputation for domestic censorship and intimidation, there has been an increasing pro-democracy sentiment in the country, as observed by the 2022 protests against President Xi Jinping’s restrictive handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is coupled with China’s slowing economic growth, something that has historically increased instability throughout the nation. There are major comparisons between the Chinese threat and the historical Soviet threat. America needs to analyze the lessons it learned in the Cold War and apply them to this new era of strategic competition.   

Our greatest weapon as a nation is our extensive heritage of Western strategy. For the sake of our country’s future, we must learn from the triumphs and mistakes of our predecessors. It is only then that we will achieve true victory.   

China Delenda Est.